CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh – I had been waiting a half-hour in the police superintendent’s dingy office, a greasy photocopy of my permission in hand, when the woman with a toddler on her hip appeared. I had gotten as far as the administrative capital Rangamati. My entry had been smoothed over through the generosity of a public welfare NGO which had invited me into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Until a decade ago no foreigner had been allowed to enter and my presence there was unusual. The hill tracts themselves are a 5,000-square-mile wild area that had – until 1997 – been the setting of a low-intensity civil war between indigenous tribes and the Bangladeshi military and ethnic Bengali settlers.
Rangamati seemed nothing short of a man-made disaster. Hydro dams completed in the early 1960s had flooded the valley to create a massive lake and displace hundreds of thousands of tribal peoples. The tribal people took refuge in the upper elevations or crossed into the tribal areas of India, only a few days hike through the jungle.
What once must have been a lush, verdant valley with small hilly peaks, is now a fetid brown lake with the hill tops acting as islands where people paddled to and fro in long wooden skiffs. In half a decade the inhabitants have been transformed from an agrarian hill people to lakeside communities complete with garish tourist amenities to cater to urban Bangladeshis.
So despite the generosity of my hosts I was eager to get out of Rangamati and into the southern, wilder district of the hill tracts. This would require additional permission from that powers-that-be that control the comings and going of foreigners.
After wandering the dusty streets of Rangamati, being hooted at by school children and hissed at by feral geese, I came across a walled compound that could only be the residence of a senior police official. I was allowed in and told to wait in the office. I passed the time watching a doomed dragonfly continuously bash itself against a fluorescent light in a futile attempt to escape the oppressive air. It ignored my coaxing toward the doorway and finally settled on a wall, apparently exhausted and consigned to its fate.
Which brings me back to the woman with the toddler. A sari-clad woman with a six-month old boy on her hip appeared after about 30 minutes and asked a few cursory questions in English. She was polite but suspicious. The toddler eyed me up and down with a cold appraisal I’ve become used to seeing in countries where children are wise beyond their years. After a few seconds his face beamed a 100-watt smile of approval and the woman sensing the change left the room. Almost immediately the commandant appeared with a servant in tow carrying a plate of fruitcake and small, ripe bananas.
The toddler’s approval secured, the police commander was at my service. Had the kid started to howl and cry, I’d probably have been thrown in the stockade; I’ll never know.
I shouldn’t give Rangamati such short shrift. After all touring the hills-cum-islands had its allure as long as one didn’t think too much about what lay underneath. Our boat passed by the current reigning king of the Chakma tribe. Thick trunks of ancient hardwoods protruded above the surface of the lake which was low it being the dry season. I was reminded of photographer Dorothea Langes’ photo essay Death of a Valley, the chronicle of the lost town of Monticello in my native Northern California that’s now Lake Berryessa. Its only remnant is a stone bridge that’s visible protruding above the water’s surface during drought years.
Our boat called in at an island resort. Well-heeled Bengalis were lapping up rice and fish dishes and drinking tea and soft drinks. We retired to a shaded gazebo. My hosts were a Buddhist monk named Sambodhi who wore a saffron robe and was constantly fingering his Nokia mobile phone and his friend Rupayan. Both ran small NGOs of which there are literally thousands in Bangladesh.
Sambodhi told me he was of the Marma tribe and born in a village on the border with the hill tracts. He took me to his NGO headquarters where scores of impoverished children live. After staring at me for several minutes Sambodhi and I sat down to drink soda and eat a package of biscuits. The children queued up to ceremoniously bow and touch our feet in a touching show of respect that made me squirm.
His friend Rupayan was a Tanchangya. He spoke halting English but understood my own stammering well enough. He brought up the subject of the infamous homemade spirit that some of the hill tribes are known to indulge in what is a dry country. His eyes widened with excitement as he described how it was triple distilled and “very dangerous.” He added that his wife wouldn’t let him go near her after he’d been on the sauce. Such things are universal.
We stopped at a magnificent Buddhist temple. A wizened monk gave me an overview of the hill tracts’ turbulent history in surprisingly fluent English. He told of how tens of thousands of tribal people were displaced by water and thousands of the landless Bengalis were settled as per government policy.
He also told of the 92-year-old monk Bana Bhante who had, he said, achieved enlightenment and was capable of supernatural feats including levitation, teleportation and the like.
“Of course it is impossible for you to see these things,” he said lest I ask for a demonstration.
He asked if I wanted to meet the holy man, who would be due in about an hour. But my hosts immediately began looking at their watches. We made our excuses and continued on.
Soon we arrived at the residence of Raja Debashish, the current king of the Chakmas. A friend of mine had been here a decade ago and met the man and found him to be quite cultured, having been educated in England. She described the grand piano in his living room and I was eager to see it. But as no one appeared to be home and I didn’t feel like bugging the monarch. Earlier Rupayan had called the guy’s mobile phone but he wasn’t picking up. I took that as a sign to leave the poor guy alone.
Itching to see more of the hill tracts I was intent on securing permission for the Bandarban region. I had been given the number of some American Christian missionaries before leaving Chittagong. They were incredulous that I was in Rangamati and said they actually lived outside the boundaries of the hill tracts and only traveled in the region with a military escort. So needless to say they didn’t have much advice. A quick browse on the internet turned up writings about a high altitude lake not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). Details were sketchy but I decided it was worth a try. It said it was a 12km hike in and from the description sounded like an oasis of peace and tranquility that’s relatively unknown in what is the most densely populated country in the world.
The police in Rangamati had instructed me to pen my own handwritten permission for the Bandarban region. They then faxed it to the deputy commissioner but my own handwritten note was my only proof of permission. Not exactly a water-tight system which I figured would work in my favor. Arriving in the town of Bandarban I quickly realized there wouldn’t be much keeping me here. Wandering the backstreets I looked into some carpentry shops that were making beautiful handcrafted furniture but not being in the market for a four-post bed, my interest dissipated rapidly.
The highlight of the town was probably the long walk down to the river at dusk. Men and women were doing their washing in the Shangu River, an altogether tranquil scene with the noises of the village in the background with the dusty hills rising dramatically from the river bank.
It was at dawn that I headed to the out-of-town bus depot to catch something headed for Ruma Ghat. From there it would be a 3km trip down the river and then, if the internet was to be believed, a 12km trek through the woods before reaching the lake. The bus ride was a bone-jarring journey with the seats designed for pygmies so that I could barely walk after the 180-minute journey over sandy roads that plowed deeper into the jungle towards the Burmese frontier.
At one point we all alighted from the bus and walked over a severely damaged bridge while the driver tempted fate by driving over it – sans passengers – and fortunately the bridge held. At the river launch I struck up conversation with two friendly Bengalis who despite their portly appearance were constant visitors and keen hikers. They ran an excursion club and were bound were one of the nearby peaks. They had been to Boga Lake many times and quickly shattered my preconception of it being a remote and uninhabited oasis of tranquility. It was beautiful, they said, but also had an established settlement complete with Army camp and the soldiers required all visitors to hire a guide. I counted my meager Taka notes and realized that while I had enough currency for meals and accommodation for one; feeding and sheltering a guide would be a different matter. I accepted their offer of a short-term, no-interest loan with the promise of payment when I returned to Dhaka.
Being the dry season the river was extremely low. I sympathized with the boatman who had to keep jumping out and literally dragging our narrow skiff over the many sandbars. On the bank, tribespeople on foot, laden with heavy burdens in baskets were passing us as our boat made miserable progress.
At the village of Ruma Bazaar my new friends treated me to lunch and took me to the Army camp for a chat with the Bangladeshi military about this lone foreigner who wanted to trek into the wilderness. They didn’t know what to make of me, frankly and I didn’t blame them. At first they said it would be impossible. The area was off-limits to foreign nationals. But after some cajoling it was agreed and with a few smiles and backslapping I was on my way.
I negotiated with my guide, Rahad, a young guy from the village. He pretended to speak better English than he did but that was okay as he told me later he had only a second-grade education. He said he was 20 years old but frankly I wouldn’t have sold him cigarettes.
It was too late to hike to the lake so he suggested we grab one a chandergari (“moon car”) to the lake. With regular public transport I guessed it wouldn’t be so desolate after all. We had to hike past a second police checkpoint because the battered blue Toyota Landcruiser would be over the legal limit of passengers. When it finally arrived I could see that Rahad wasn’t kidding. Clinging to the back of the roll cage was a baker’s dozen so that Rahad and I were twenty second and twenty third passengers respectively. Over the next hour and a half the jeep lurched crawled and sputtered over a dusty track with everyone ducking from low branches and trying not to be thrown from the vehicle.
Boga Lake was more pond sized but it still was an impressive sight in the reddish twilight. Coughing up the dust from the last 15km I was eager for a dip.
But first more formalities.
We checked into the police checkpoint and sat down for another Q&A session. I began to realize that much of the time in the hill tracts had been convincing the local officials that I wasn’t a threat. They were affable enough and I managed to steer the conversation more toward the soldier’s brand of mobile phone or the climate in Northern California and less to what the hell I was doing in that part of Bangladesh in the first place.
After satisfying their curiosity we were free to go. Immediately we checked in to the rest house which agreed to lodge and feed both of us for an incredibly small sum. I dove into the water amidst the snickers of a couple of young women washing in the lake. Their lack of modesty compared to mainstream (Muslim) Bangladesh was striking and a bit refreshing. I dog paddled around until the sun disappeared behind the hills and it was getting dark. Taking a quick walk I came upon a survey team doing a census. There were 24 families living there, I was told.
During our delicious vegetarian dinner of rice, spicy vegetables and lentils an Army commander in plain clothes along with two soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders waltzed in and started poking round with a flashlight. My hosts were stone faced neither showing welcome nor contempt. I paused from the meal and asked what they wanted.
Just checking, I was told.
Winning hearts and minds they were not.
Later I met a Bangladeshi hippie burning a trash in a pit. That might not sound very ecological but when the national practice is to spread your rubbish around as thinly as possible, a trash pyre is about as close as Bangladesh gets to the Swiss aesthetic.
We fell into conversation. He was from the city of Khulna – far away from the hill tracts. He had been coming there for four years and had long played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Army as he had no guide but had instead (pardon the phrase) gone native.
The families had moved in the early 1990s when the village was built from scratch. Before that tribes had hunted, fished and gathered only seasonally. But as hostilities died down between tribesmen and the military a permanent settlement was established to cater to visitors. Nearly the whole town, I came to realize, was for tourists. Bangladeshi tourists. During the wet season (June) the place would be lush, verdant and full of visitors who would hike in and spend several days eating, dancing, cavorting and littering – much to his and the tribes people’s annoyance.
He told me he did odd jobs around the village had been accepted pretty much as a permanent resident. I had to take most of what he said at face value but judging from his interaction with the local tribesmen he seemed to have an established a good rapport.
Our conversation went late into the night about materialism and the evils of modernity. He seemed wise beyond his 26 years and my asinine questions about whether he ogled the local girls or comely female tourists were met by stares of indifference and well-deserved contempt.
The arrogance of the military – I had told him about the military incursion during dinner – was commonplace, he said. Relations between locals and the soldiers are “so bad” he said. Some of the officers weren’t bad people but most were “uneducated” and had little time or interest in the setting or the feelings of the people who made this area their home. Most had come from villages bordering Mizoram, a tribal state in India and had moved here to make a living on the brusque tourist trade. He complained bitterly that in just a few short years that tribes people had become more commercially oriented and were just chasing dollars from visitors.
Still, it was a long way away from anything I’d seen in the rest of the country.
Awake before 6 a.m. the next morning Rahad and I set off over the dusty hills. The path mostly wound around along the river bank so that by the time the sun was over our heads we had made good progress. We passed many tribes people some Bawm, some Marma, some friendly, some simply gawking. It was a long walk and with my pack crammed full of all of my worthless valuables (laptop, camera, recorder, things I couldn’t afford to replace had they been stolen) checked my progress while the light-footed Rahad kept ahead always just almost out of view.
More than three hours later we were back in Ruma Bazaar. Rahad exhibited me to the soldiers at the Army post to prove I hadn’t been robbed, kidnapped or eaten and I collected the bulk of my luggage and went down to the water. The next skiff wouldn’t set off for an hour. The perfect amount of time for a leisurely lunch before we paddled upstream. But my heat-stroked mind doesn’t work like that. I could be at the ghat by the time the stupid boat sets off, I reasoned.
To the horror of Rahad and several onlookers I set off down the riverbank to scramble my way back to the river launch where the buses depart. My soggy Syrian sandals sloshed along and I could feel them giving way. About 500 yards before reaching the bus stand, a sandal broke sending me sprawling over.
“Scheisse!” I instinctively cried. I’ve taught myself to curse in a foreign language when something truly embarrassing happens that way my own nationality won’t suffer for my foolishness. Apologies to Germany.
Indeed, my misfortune sent a washing woman with a keen sense of schadenfreude into hysterics as I picked myself up and inspected the damage. Nothing broken I sauntered up to the ghat.
Forsaking the 7-year-old boy who acted as ferryman to cross the river, I decided to ford the river like I had had done several times already. But I realized that there was a deep channel and got pretty soaked, albeit in a refreshing sort of way.
On the bus ride out I was of course pulled off the bus one last time where I was lightly interrogated by a soldier who had to rely on English phrases he’d written out on a piece of paper. He asked where my guide was. I didn’t have one. He asked when I had signed in. I had come from another district. None of my answers synced with his flow chart and in exasperation I was waved through.
As the bus sped into Chittagong I quickly became reacquainted with the urban maelstrom that is Bangladesh’s second city. Sitting near the rear I watched in horror as the bus sideswiped a bicycle rickshaw, sending the driver, a small boy and what was likely an older female relative sprawling and tumbling into the street. The bus accelerated and my instinctive shout of “Oh shit!” was met by casual indifference.
I have never liked the phrase life is cheap. But it certainly seems undervalued.